The quick and dirty:
Rating: 3 stars
Length: Middling (368 pages)
Publication: June 9, 2009 from Tor Books
Premise: A child who has forgotten her own name is sold into luxurious captivity, trained to be an elite courtesan for the pleasure of rulers. She is forbidden to even speak her own language, but she secretly holds on to rebellion, never losing hope that she can find her way back. Her nightly lessons in silent movement are to a greater purpose than she knows, and conspiracies catch her up in ever-deeper layers.
Warnings: Several attempted rape scenes, treatment of children as prospective sexual objects, mild whipping, dramatic age gaps in sexual encounters
Recommendation: It's hard to muster up much emotion for this one either way, honestly. The plot feels scattered and distracted, but the initial character building is quite vivid. All in all, this one is probably a good library or discount bet if you're looking for sort of a mythic or dreamlike tone.
What makes this one's beginnings intriguing:
The initial segment is beautiful, introducing the narrator as she explains that she has lost her own name to the mists of time. She can remember the name of the ox, Endurance, but not the sound of her father's voice, not her mother's face, and certainly not her own name. After her mother died, her father sold her to Fedoro, an agent of the Factor, who collects potentially beautiful women and sculpts them to his purposes. She is taken on a long journey across the sea, leaving behind the country with the name she never learned, and brought straight to the Pomegranate Court, a place with high walls that she will not leave for years. Different sorts of Mistresses come to fill her day with lessons, watching her for the slightest imperfection and beating her viciously for each one. She tries to stay true to her resolve, but she loves the lessons about reading and the richness of understanding that she never would have gained in the fields at home. This first third strikes a note-perfect mournful tone, mingling regret for what could have been with her fierce resolve to become more than what's dictated by any of the people who have controlled her.
Green calls herself thus because the Factor names her Emerald during a brusque livestock-esque inspection, and Green is the closest she can come in the half-forgotten language of her people, which she is beaten for speaking. She cannot go outside to find an ox like Endurance, but she is determined to recover her belled silk. The peasant women of her area sew a bell to a swatch of fabric for each day of their lives, with mothers sewing for their infant daughters, and Green was forced to leave hers behind when Fedoro took her along. It's admittedly improbable that she's later good at sewing when she was a toddler and doing something less complex than sewing on a button, but the tradition itself is lovely. She's clever enough to beg for iron scraps and sailcloth on the ship to attempt a new belled silk, which Fedoro discover. Later on she sews seeds from the tree at the heart of the Pomegranate Court to a length of fabric, only to have that one ripped away in the cruelest manner possible. She tries again and again to make a belled silk that she can keep, some beautiful and some ragged, edging ever closer to seeing the effort as a burden instead of her only bridge to childhood.
Her new life tries to stamp her quick mind into learning without asking questions, but she continues to grasp for every scrap of information that she can overhear, and what she learns often makes her course murkier. Several of the Mistresses, in addition to Fedoro, are decent people who bring her good books or try to give her some freedom to speak her mind without fear of a beating. They can't act against the Factor for fear of upsetting the immortal Duke, who has ruled the city of Copper Downs for four centuries, but they show enough kindness to prevent her from hating the whole world. The Dancing Mistress in particular is intriguing; she's a pardine, one of a dying race of cat-like people who interact warily with humans. She serves the Factor, not entirely willingly, as a teacher in dancing and grace for young girls, and conspires with Fedoro to put Green forward in a plan that neither of them will explain. They value Green for her strength of will and for her own sake, but they're also willing to use her as a tool if they have to. Their loyalties are clearly divided in a way that makes them likeable but not fully trustworthy.
Green's eventual escape and temporary triumph are both incredibly suspenseful and interesting, pulling what could have been an enormous fantasy tome into a mere third of a book. While that section could have resolved more smoothly, the underlying drive of it is fascinating. Green is willing to do whatever she has to for a shot at freedom, even though she's barely twelve at the end of that arc. Her next move is to try to find out where she belongs. For years she had assumed that that was her father's home, even though he sold her, but home is even less than a shadow of what she remembers; it becomes a horror to her, and she flees to Kalimpura simply because it is the nearest large city. There she encounters the Priestesses of the Lily Goddess and is accepted as an aspirant in the order of the Lily Blades. The Dancing Mistress had taught her how to fall and defend herself, but the temple she finds training and an outlet for her rage at the injustices of the world that she can't fix. This section also could have been a novel in itself, though perhaps in a different series; two detailed courses of training in all-female environments could easily become stagnant.
Other reviewers seem to have had problems with the sex in the novel, but it mainly serves to enhance the story up until the later part of Green's training with the Lily Blades. Eroticism has its place, and the initial scene where a Mistress is teaching Green how to understand her body and use it as a tool to entice men works beautifully; it's poignant and serves to demonstrate how much power she doesn't have, even if she does master her lessons. When she starts to hit later puberty along with some of the other girls, they experiment with each other for warmth and comfort and pleasure. Her first deliberate kill is the catalyst for a subplot that could have been so much more, though the initial glimpse was haunting. She has had to kill someone without being sure that he was a bad person, and starts to scrub her hands bloody in the bath to feel better. The other aspirants lead her away and flog her to let the sensation guide her back to her body and help create some small sense of redemption. She relishes the pain for its cleansing and also takes pleasure in it, which isn't entirely unexpected given that her beatings as a child were never by her choice, while those in the temple of the Lily Goddess are willingly chosen help her deal with guilt.
The red pen:
Unfortunately, the potential richness of girls about Green's own age initiating her into a painful method of redemption quickly goes downhill after her post-assassination meeting with the Temple Mothers. She starts sleeping with everyone in the Temple, including those Mothers who have been written with extremely heavy-handed lusty old grandma voices. This trend continues throughout the rest of the book, including such gems as Green sleeping with her the pardine Dancing Mistress on the day that they are reunited because....apparently that's what you do in prison instead of exchanging useful information. She lusts after a mother who rescues her in the wilderness, sleeps with a male priest because they had an engaging theological discussion, and seems to consider sex a far higher priority than is really comfortable to read when we're talking about a girl who's maybe fifteen at the end of the book. The third section is where exasperation at the incoherent plot overtakes the slow richness of the prose and of Green's struggle to find some sort of fate for herself.
Green is pulled back to Copper Downs with almost no warning with the vague excuse that her association with the Duke's magical residue might be able to help fix things in the present, and the Lily Goddess agrees because apparently this is all tied up with some scheme to kill and silence the gods. The idea had promise, but details about how the gods work, where they came from, and how they can killed or transformed, are thin on the ground to the point of being nonexistent. This means that later on, when Green is trying to negotiate the tangle of gods and avatars and theopomps, there's not really much to do besides shrug helplessly and assume that things will work out because the plot said so. I honestly couldn't follow the tangle of what was a god's creature versus a being possessed by a god, and how some people can sort of take godhood off and stash it somewhere to hide. It had a lot of promise, but I've really seen the idea of gods and believers shaping each other before (hi, Small Gods and American Gods) in this genre, and it tends to be executed more coherently than this.
The whole storyline about gods also loses its momentum because of the sheer blunt obviousness of the elements that you should, in theory, be able to guess without more information. The character who is the traitor is obviously the traitor the first time Green encounters him as an adult, and she even has this rambling speech about how she should have known her friends from her enemies. Melancholy narrators can pull this off and still be capable of surprising you, but this plot never felt shocking. Instead, it was a mess of facts that didn't string along behind each other paired with fairly predictable loyalty twists. Several of the most important characters weren't even introduced until the final third, so trying to guess their reactions just becomes frustrating. Rectifier, for example, is a pardine who wears the knuckle bones of priests braided into his fur. He clearly dislikes human religions and the fact that the Duke stole some of his people's power, but none of that makes him feel more like a fleshed-out person. Odds are he'll show up in a future book as a more central character, but in this one he swooped in, was plot-crucial, and then left again.
Other little details didn't hang together either. Green is given lessons as the only student of the Pomegranate Court, but all of the teachers except for Mistress Tirelle, her constant warden, travel through the Factor's house to give near-identical versions of the same lessons to the other girls. Even if the Factor has money to burn, it seems like a waste of resources unless he's determined that the girls never be allowed to talk to their peers, which could make sense if we were ever told why the Factor would want to run things that way. And the euphemisms....the vaginal area keeps being called a "sweetpocket," which is reminiscent of nothing so much as a Hot Pocket gone horribly wrong. The narrative often seems to be on fast-forward at odd moments, gliding along only to seem skipping and jagged in the midst of a crisis that deserves more space. She lingers on odd moments and images that don't snap as much as they should at the expense of actually showing the transitions instead of saying things like "I lost the cap to my anger" and then skipping past the way she lost friends and loves.
Green's loss of her belled silk over and over is poignant and works well with her losing the stable fragments of her life, but the ox Endurance is over-written as a symbol. He could have been just a good stand-in for her faded memories of home, but when she sees him again there's no let-down or realization that he's an old ox without special powers. Instead, he continues to be the symbol of everything patient and good and home-like to the point that I wanted to throw the book across the room every time she mentioned the clopping of his wooden bell. Symbols can be beautiful, but this one was hammered out so obviously that it became grating to read.
All in all, this one had potential but could have been better. The first two thirds each could have been the roots of something great, and they even could have worked together, but the ending gets too lost and vague to really work. I'll probably look into other things that Jay Lake writes if they're in other series, but he's not at the top of my list.
Prospects: The sequel, Endurance, came out last November. I was hoping we were quit of the bloody ox, but the title indicates otherwise. There may or may not be more in the series eventually.
Enjoyed this? Try:
~The Kushiel's Legacy series by Jacqueline Carey, particularly the first trilogy. Phèdre doesn't have Green's skill with a knife or her fierce well of anger, but the prose style and initial courtesan training segment, not to mention interactions with the gods in later books, are similar enough to draw some shared fans.